Thelma and Louise is a cult movie starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two friends who set off on the road trip of a lifetime. The two stars both received Best Actress nominations for their portrayal of how a simple weekend away to a lakeside cabin took many unexpected twists.
A critical and commercial success, it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for scriptwriter Callie Khouri in 1991. It was also added to the National Film Registry for preservation by the United States Library of Congress in 2016, as a result of its cultural and historical significance.
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Characters and plot
When Thelma met Louise, both women were in unhappy relationships and felt unfulfilled in their dreary life in Arkansas. Housewife Thelma Dickinson (Davis) endured her controlling husband Darryl, while waitress Louise Sawyer (Sarandon) was in an unsatisfying on-off relationship with musician, Jimmy, who was always on tour.
Thelma is rather ditzy and simply puts up with her lot in life, despite Darryl continually disrespecting her. Louise is more streetwise and sharp-tongued, largely due to her job in a diner.
They decide to escape their humdrum existence for one weekend, going on a road trip to a lakeside fishing lodge to let their hair down, but events quickly spiral out of control, with life-changing consequences, after they stop at a roadside diner.
Thelma dances with a stranger, Harlan, but he oversteps the mark when he takes her outside and tries to rip her clothes off. Louise finds them and threatens Harlan with a gun. Although he stops his attack on Thelma, he continues to shout verbal abuse at both women, until Louise shoots him.
To their horror, they find he is dead and they flee the scene in a panic. Thelma thinks they should go to the police. However, Louise is scared the police won’t believe that Harlan was trying to rape Thelma and fears she will end up on a murder charge.
They make a snap decision to go on the run and head for Mexico, picking up handsome hitch-hiker “JD” on the way. This was Brad Pitt’s first starring role and the one that shot him to stardom at the age of 27.
It was reported he was paid only $6,000 for his role in Thelma and Louise. Five years later, he commanded $10 million for his role in Sleepers. George Clooney was reportedly in the running for the role of JD and was sorry to lose out to Pitt.
Thelma and Louise’s road trip continues across America and Thelma falls for JD, despite finding out he’s a thief who just broke parole. However, after Thelma spends the night with him in a hotel, she discovers he has fled with their money!
Deciding there’s no going back now, Thelma and Louise rob a convenience store, ironically using tactics they have picked up from JD. Thelma has decided she will never go back to Darryl but offers Louise the chance to go home after Jimmy wants her back and proposes. However, Louise turns him down and continues on the road with Thelma.
Arriving in New Mexico, they are pulled over for speeding and realise the state trooper will soon find out they’re on the run for murder and armed robbery. So they lock him in the boot of his own police car and continue on their way.
While on the road, they get into further trouble when they fire a gun at the truck of a driver who continually makes obscene gestures at them. They hit the petrol tank and the truck explodes in a ball of fire!
They are pursued by the authorities and find themselves trapped on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Rather than allowing themselves to be captured and spending the rest of their lives in jail, they agree to “keep going” – and go hurtling over the edge of the cliff.
As well as winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Thelma and Louise was nominated for five further Academy Awards. It was nominated for eight BAFTA Awards, won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, along with a host of other awards from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, the Critics’ Circle and more.
Director Ridley Scott won the French César Award for Best Foreign Film. He was better known for sci-fi movies, such as Alien and Blade Runner, and it was reported that Khouri had doubts about whether he was right for Thelma and Louise – but he proved her wrong!
During his interview with the screenwriter, he pointed out he had cast a strong woman in the lead role in Alien, which would normally have been played by a man. She didn’t need any more convincing and he got the job.
At a cost of $16.5 million to make, Thelma and Louise grossed $45.4 million at the box office – a nice and tidy profit! It was reported that some of the era’s top actresses, including Holly Hunter, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Michelle Pfeiffer, had been considered for the roles of Thelma and Louise.
Davis and Sarandon made the roles their own, which subsequently benefited their future careers. Sarandon went on to make a number of hit films, such as Lorenzo’s Oil in 1992 and Dead Man Walking in 1995, for which she won the best actress Academy Award. She has been nominated for six Emmy Awards for her TV performances and is also a respected producer.
Davis also went on to make a number of hit movies, including playing the character of the mouse’s mother in the Stuart Little franchise between 1999 and 2005. She won the Golden Globe best actress award for her role in the TV series, Commander in Chief, between 2005 and 2006. She played the role of Dr Nicole Herman in the TV hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy between 2014 and 2018.
Thelma and Louise remains one of the most significant films of the 20th century and has been hailed as a “buddy film” which has unbounded “freshness and vigour”. It has been praised by feminists as re-scripting the typical gender roles of road movies. An article commemorating the film’s 20th anniversary described it as the “last great film about women”.
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